Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mini-post: Inception, why it's only good, and why it'll be remembered

There's not a lot about Inception that hasn't already been said. The film has taken over popular media for weeks now. A multitude of sites have done an array of dissections in an attempt to decipher the full story of the film. Now, I feel this is in vain, as if we were supposed to know everything we would already. By viewing the movie, we've gotten out of it what Nolan wants us to get out of it.
But beyond that dissection is critical analysis of the film. Now this has also been overdone, but I feel as if most reviews tend to lean too far towards "messy film that sucks" or towards "god tier film, The Matrix of this decade." It's neither. Now, I'm a huge Nolan fan. Memento is one of my top 5 films. Insomnia, Prestige, and Following are examples of how his common themes of obsession can be so well expressed when edited in the right way. The Batman films are fun popcorn flicks. But Inception has sort of soured on me. A common theme in things I'm watching lately is carried over here: there's so much more that could have been done. The script feels like it collapses under such a grand and exciting premise; invading dreams could result in such wild adventures. And the film gives a look of having a diverse and compelling cast of characters. Instead, the film is nothing more than a psychological twist on a heist film. Normally, this would be excellent. But with such a huge amount of frontloaded hype, the film ends up being just very good.
I still think it will be discussed for years, though. Hopefully this film and Batman 3 become a sort of turning point for Nolan. I would love to see this director, who now has so much positive buzz around him, attempt to tackle a story in the vain of The Prestige or Memento. With a bigger budget and a guaranteed viewing audience, Nolan's creativity could end up defining his career, instead of the popcorn fun of Inception and the Batman films. Also, because the film does leave a lot open to interpretation and because many of the concepts of the film are confusing, conversation will continue and I'm sure more spin-off stories from comics to guide books will develop.
So in the end, I really wanted to love Inception. I only enjoyed it. The acting was good for what everyone was given, the two central stories of Cobb and Robert were great, the cinematography was excellent, and the action was done well enough. On the purely creative side, the movie doesn't really deliver. Hopefully this pushes Nolan to reevaluate the films he's making.

Twin Peaks: An awesome show that falls short of what it could be

"She's dead. Wrapped in plastic."

The title here may seem strange. Twin Peaks is awesome. It's one of the best TV shows I've ever watched. And yet, from interviews with the cast and crew (mainly David Lynch) we can see that this show is still another story of network pressure changing the face of a show in a way that nearly maims it.
The first season of Twin Peaks is as perfect as it gets. From minute one, every character is engrossing and multi-layered. The setting immediately grips the viewer as both a place so usual and so strange. And while the central story surrounding the brutal rape and murder of high school student Laura Palmer is the most interesting, the stories of the town that grow from that central plot feel so organic. Slowly, the show transforms from being about a murder in a small town to being about that small town, in all of it's quirkiness. The way that town so naturally grows is infectious. If someone had told me I would one day be interested in a show that contained a plot about a waitress with a jailed husband and her new love life with a gas clerk who is married to a pirate lady...well I would consider that person mentally unstable. But the way every character has relationships with others creates a web, and with the Palmer case at the center, I couldn't help but dive into this town and enjoy it all.
Lynch also uses clever techniques to engross and frighten the viewer. Lynch ignores the common tropes of "pop-out" scares and grossing out the viewer to instead deliver scenes that are so unbelievably out there that they become terrifying. Speaking backwards and midget dancing doesn't sound scary, but when our protagonist Dale Cooper has a vision of just that, along with the murder victim, it feels as if Lynch has destroyed the boundaries of what could happen in a show with so basic a premise. And not only these scenes are scary. Using wide and static camera angles for simple events like conversations, we can contrast the discussions of drug deals and darkness in the woods with ordinary context environments like a diner. With that contrast allowed, we can feel as if the blackness that permeates Twin Peaks can reach us at any moment.
This feeling of inevitable consumption by something out of our control continues until the first third of season 2. The behind-the-scenes story here is that the network pressured the show into revealing the killer of Laura Palmer and wrapping up her story in general. From my viewing of season 2, I feel this was an awful choice. The episodes that reveal and then kill the murderer, the spirit BOB that has taken control of Leland Palmer, are wonderful. They're tightly dramatic, violent, and twisted. Did Laura know that it wasn't truly her father hurting her? Could Leland have done more to stop it? Is there any way to stop BOB?
We are still left with questions, but the story moves on to a different plot for Dale Cooper. Here's where it goes wrong. The show removed the center of the carefully crafted web that guided the show, but tried to keep all of the outer strands. The new middle didn't feel related, and therefore lessened the impact of every single storyline. Even with Wyndom Earle being a great adversary and a compelling character, the rest of the season until the finale feels almost flat. For the first time, storylines began to annoy me. I could barely handle Nadine having the mind of a high schooler. The beginning of an Audrey/Bobby romance only to have it become Audrey/Random Man was annoying. Andrew Packards return and Josie's demise are slightly interesting, but too drawn out. They also aren't given enough previous meaning.
The series finale reveals how great the season could have been without network meddling and with more involvement from Frost and Lynch. By the finale, we are shown that Earle wants to summon the power of the Black Lodge. By then, his quest has grabbed some other characters, and the show has started to gain the same dramatic weight it had at the beginning. But there are still lose threads, like Audrey, and the Packards and Pete, and the Ed/Norma/Nadine love triangle. My retroactively proposed solution (I am sure there are better stories that could have been told; this is more of an example of what season 2 could have been): if Leland hadn't been revealed as the killer, or even if he had but the characters knew BOB was still on the loose, the season could have included not only the search for Earle, but also the search for BOB/Leland. All of it could have lead to the Black Lodge in the finale. This would have kept the same central story from the beginning, gaining more emotional draw and still pushing forward. Imagine the fright to have Dale enter the Black Lodge in an attempt to finally stop BOB and save Annie from Earle, only to have the same events happen. It would instill hope in the viewer: this has come to an end, BOBs victims are vindicated, Earle is dead, and Annie and Dale can be happy. But with BOB being inside Dale, a season 3 involving the rescue of Dale and maybe a trip to the White Lodge to finally vanquish BOB would have continued to be compelling by being related to the original murder. And picture a dark scene early in the season where Dale murders Ronette, and then investigates it later.
The opportunity for chilling moments like that were there, but an invasive network and distracted creative team prevented Twin Peaks from achieving true perfection for all of it's two seasons. Nonetheless, it's a frightening and infectious show that will occupy all areas of your mind, and I recommend it to all.

(Side note: I did watch Fire Walk With Me, but I found all it did was weaken Laura's character, create illogical stories for others [bobby murdering? what?], and create a way for Dale to be saved, which was unnecessary after cancellation. Overall, unremarkable and I'd rather ignore it.)

"Black as midnight on a moonless night."

Why Kid Cudi's new album will either be amazing or awful

Kid CuDi - "Erase Me" (feat. Kanye West) (CDQ) by Some Kind of Awesome
The first full studio album from Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, was one of my favorite records of the last year. I'm not usually into rap, but Cudi's songs were emotionally involving and catchy. Cudi has great rhythm, and the narration throughout made the entire experience cohesive. Overall, his album felt like something that was meaningful and different, yet still really fun.
From listening to the first two songs off of his newest album, Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, which is set for October of this year, I feel Cudi will accomplish several of these things again. Both "REVOFEV" and "Erase Me (feat. Kanye West)" have great beats and practically beg to be sung/rapped along with. It also changes up his formula a bit, with a heavier leaning towards rock-style guitars and slower tempos. Cudi's delivery on the tracks is great also; his rapping has only become better.
However, I am worried that the album won't be as emotionally connective and dark. The End of Day follows the premise of a journey into the depths of the mind of this rapper. It's a look at his addictions, his desires, and his true feelings. This provides the album with a very personal and psychological feeling. But The Legend of Mr. Rager goes in the other direction. Mr. Rager is what the rapper calls his public alter-ego, the man you see on stage, and the man who is now famous. It tells stories from his real life. This is where the album will either fail or succeed. If Cudi can make the tales of Mr. Rager interesting and appeal to emotions, the album will garner the same personality that won me over on the first album. But if that emotion isn't backing the tracks, I'm worried it will be largely boring and just a vehicle for him to deliver radio singles.
Regardless, I'm excited for the album to release.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Emmy expectations

Here are my calls for the categories I care about.

Outstanding Comedy Actor
I want Alec Baldwin to win (though honestly, I haven't seen all of this year's 30 Rock). And if not him, Morrison for Glee. Realistically, it'll come down to Larry David for Curb or Shalhoub for Monk, and Shalhoub will win.

Outstanding Comedy Actress
I think Amy Poehler will win for Parks, and that's also who I'd like to win. I could see Falco for Nurse Jackie making a run for it.

Outstanding Drama Actor
I so badly want Matt Fox to win for playing Jack Shephard on Lost. But we all know Cranston will win for Breaking Bad (which I embarrassingly still haven't seen). And if it's not him, it'll be Jon Hamm for Mad Men. And if not him, Chandler for FNL. And then MCH for Dexter. Fox has the lead on House. That's it. *sigh*

Outstanding Drama Actress
I'm thinking Margulies for The Good Wife, but the Emmy's love Mad Men so much that I could see Jones winning for Betty Draper.

Outstanding Comedy Series
I think it'll be Glee, and that's again who I want to win. A Modern Family win would also make me happy, but Curb and Nurse Jackie have a better chance.

Outstanding Drama Series
I want it to be Lost oh so badly, but it's like the Drama Actor category: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Dexter all have the advantage. BB will likely take it.

Outstanding Art Direction for a Single-Camera Series
Lost has a great chance at this one for Ab Aeterno, but Glee could also win for the Pilot.

Outstanding Comedy Casting
It's gotta be Modern Family. One of the BEST ensemble casts in years. I can't see it being any other show.

Outstanding Drama Casting
I'm thinking FNL, but if it's not Friday Night Lights it'll be Mad Men or True Blood.

Outstanding Comedy Directing
Murphy for the Glee pilot. That's it.

Outstanding Drama Directing
Bender deserves it for the epic End to Lost, and I really hope he gets it. Again, though, BB will probably beat it. Too bad.

Outstanding Comedy Guest Actor
Mike O'Malley should get it for his amazing performance as Mr. Hummel on Glee. Arnett could beat him, though.

Outstanding Drama Guest Actor
John Lithgow has it for creating the creepiest villain in four seasons of Dexter.

Outstanding Comedy Guest Actress
Chenoweth for Glee is my pick, but Fey or White could get it for their hilarious SNL episodes.

Outstanding Drama Guest Actress
I want Mitchell to win for her amazing relationship and storyline in season 6 with Sawyer but I haven't seen any of the other shows in this category. So I can't know.

Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics
I'd like to see a HIMYM or Monk win here, but I think Treme will win.

Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series
I'd love a Lost or Fringe win, but...well you know what show will win...stupid meth.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy
Truly, I'd be happy with any win other than Cryer for Two and a Half Men. But I think Burrell will win for Phil Dunphy, the best new character of the year.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama
Terry O'Quinn HAS to win this one. His dual performances in the final season of Lost were just astounding.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy
Another category where the only win I'd be angry at is 2.5 Men, but I need not worry: Jane Lynch has this in the bag.

Outstanding Writing for a Comedy
Probably the Modern Family pilot, but the Glee pilot has a definite chance also.

Outstanding Writing for a Drama
Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost. Please be Lost.
It'll be Mad Men. :(

What I've been listening to

I'm no musical expert, but I do love listening to music. So I'm going to keep music reviews simple and short.
I've worked my way through LCD Soundsystem's discography and LOVED it. Every song is so full of energy and power. While songs frequently surpass the 6 minute mark, they never feel too long. They're too infectious to get tiring. Songs like "Daft Punk is Playing at my House," "North American Scum," "All My Friends," and "Dance Yrself Clean" are permanently in my brain now.
I've heard plenty of Arcade Fire before, but I listened to their two albums continuously and found them much better that way. Funeral is probably a bit better than Neon Bible, but both are very emotional and honest. I can't wait for what they have next. I'm also anticipating seeing them at Lollapalooza.
I also got B.o.B.'s full album. The singles are catchy but not very good. The first track on the album seems like it could precede a nice, earnest album like Cudi's Man on the Moon I, but it's all standard stuff. Not awful, but not good.
The rap album from Childish Gambino, or Donald Glover, is very good. Much better than the mainstream B.o.B. It's honest and talks about what his actual life is, while having a good pace and lyrical style. That's the only kind of rap I enjoy.
The debut album from Company of Thieves, "Ordinary Riches," is plain awesome. Genevieve Schatz provides beautiful vocals, the lyrics are interesting, and the music is tight and well-done. Can't wait to see them at Lolla also.
I listened to the most recent album from Devo, and it's good but not great. I'll have to go back and listen to their older stuff, because I feel like I might enjoy it. There were certainly songs I enjoyed on "Something For Everybody," but overall it fell flat.
I've been holding off on listening to The Fratellis' "Here We Stand" because I don't want to have heard everything from them. They're just too damn good. And while "Here We Stand" isn't as oddly catchy as "Costello Music," it's still a great record. I won't go back and listen to it as much as I do "Costello Music," though.
I listened to Hot Chip's first album after someone said they were similar to LCD Soundsystem. I loved the vocals, but it's not the same as LCD. It's a little more mellow and quiet, sort of like XX. But it's not quiet enough to stress the musical cues. I liked it though, and I'm sure I'll enjoy their other albums.
Kid Cudi has his new album, "Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager," coming out this fall. I've only heard the song "REVOFEV" from it, and I'm very excited for the album. It sounds like Cudi is taking the success of his first album and running with a different theme that permeates his life. Hopefully REVOFEV is an intro song for the album, as it's sort of plain and not very expressive.
MGMT's "Congratulations" is equal to "Oracular Spectacular." I enjoy both some, but not a ton. I can't quite say why, really, as they're such different albums.
Phoenix's recent album is great, even for the songs beyond the singles. I'm also very excited to se them at Lolla.
That's all I have for now. Next up for me to listen to is The National, Eminem's "Recovery," and Hot Chip's most recent album.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Christopher Nolan and his use of Time

I thought about doing separate reviews for each of the movies here, but while viewing them I found the common link was time. Nolan uses flashbacks, reverse storytelling, and unspecified sequences to increase tension in his films and create a better experience. Film-by-film, here's how I saw his use of time.
Goes without saying: spoilers

Following is really very dark and examines the danger of our own human curiosity. But the dramatic tension in the film largely comes from the flashback sequencing. Throughout the film, I empathized with the Young Man. Sure, he was creepy and had problems. But he seemed essentially good, and I was hoping he would realize his errors. The beginning sequence made this seem possible; the Young Man could turn himself in and repent and send Cobb to jail. So when we see that it's all been a conspiracy to blame the Young Man for the murder of the Blonde, it hits much harder.

Memento is a very heavily discussed film, so I'll try to not delve into it too much. The non-sequential story-telling in Memento is perfect. While the timeline goes A to B to C, the story is told in alternating sequences from C to B and A to B, with the ending of the film taking place in the middle of the timeline. The temporal games make the viewer just as confused as the amnesiac Leonard. It also stresses that the climax and turning point of the film is the point where Leonard begins his own hunt for who should be his last John G: Teddy. This takes place at the middle, but is the height of excitement in the film, and a fitting end to the movie.

Insomnia really only plays with time through lighting and delusion. The perpetual light of the North throws off the viewer and the characters. The delusions of Dormer are non-sequential, but they don't leave us questioning too much. All in all, the two up the tension, but not as much as the interactions between the characters.

Batman Begins and Dark Knight
I'm not going to talk about these right now, as I don't think time matters as much in these. Another viewing of Begins (I've seen TDK enough) might change that though.

The Prestige
The Prestige has a sequencing nearly as complex as Memento, yet I don't find it as tense. Still, it helps to make the movie a thrill ride. Like Memento, While we have the A to B to C sequencing, we begin at both B and C, see part of C and the beginning of B, and then flash back to A. The slow unveiling of the entire illusion allows us to see the full moral stakes at the climax of the film, which impacts us more.

Nolan is one of my favorite directors, and his use of time is a reason why. I hope this helps explain why I have a man-crush on him.

"Party Down" goes down (?)

This isn't going to be long one at all (not that any of mine are, my attention span sucks) because critics like Sepinwall and Memles have already dissected every episode of Party Down very well.
If you haven't seen the show, it's all up on Netflix. Go watch it now, before I spoil you.

But I wanted to express how much I love this show. Party Down, for all of it's 20 episode run, has been incredibly honest and funny. It's a pitch-perfect combination of awkward social situational comedy and overarching themes of fame and fulfillment. It contains such earnest examination of our parameters for failure and success, our approach to relationships, and the fact that life really does just go on. The partially rotating cast of characters coupled with the setting really had me thinking about what counts as completion in life and about how people depend so very much on others. Add to that the comedic elements of amazing writing that manages to create some of the best situations in a sitcom in years and the weekly guest stars and the show had me busting a gut every episode.
And while this may be the end for Party Down, I don't think it's a failure. The run of the show itself is very reflective of the lesson of the show: while we may fail in many areas of life and while we may separate from those around us, life does go on and we can find happiness eventually. Just as Henry tried another audition and kept his relationship with Casey in a prime example of pursuing happiness and moving on, Adam Scott and much of the Party Down cast have landed huge roles on other television shows. Good luck to them.